Friday, November 21, 2014

Why We Tend To Infer Design And Purpose In Nature

Here's a quote from a New York Times article by Paul Bloom and Konika Banerjee on why we tend to believe things happen for a reason:

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions. This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

Almost all atheists live by the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We recite it almost like a reflex whenever some theist trots out a claim to the supernatural "truth" of their religion. The atheist demands a high standard of evidence because the nature of the claim is high. But realizing the difficulties with being able to produce extraordinary evidence to support their extrodinary claims (which they can't), some theists have chosen to attack the principle instead.

Randal Rauser is one of them. He's written criticisms of this popular atheist saying several times on his blog and even tried to parody it with the idea that "Extraordinary cars require extraordinary acceleration". There's a categorical mistake by comparing cars and acceleration to claims and evidence. Claims always need to be backed up by evidence, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary. For every claim, there needs to be evidence. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence should be. Seems reasonable. For cars, extraordinary cars do not require extraordinary acceleration. There's no relationship between how rare or unusual a car is and how much acceleration it needs. A custom made car that is one of a kind doesn't require any extra acceleration needs.

Randal objects to the idea that claims about god, virgin births, resurrections, and spirits living among us are extraordinary. He's thinks they're perfectly, well, ordinary. But there are problems with this position.

In order for something to be ordinary it has to be common, routine, standard, or typical. That's the definition of ordinary. So to claim that gods, virgin births, resurrections, and spirits living among us are ordinary, is to say that they are common, routine, standard, or typical. But things that are ordinary are uncontroversial because they are backed up by lots of empirical data and we experience them frequently.

People flying on airplanes are ordinary; people flying on magic carpets are not. We recognize this because no one has ever seen or documented a flying carpet. Thus, such claims would be extraordinary, because they aren't common, routine, standard, or typical. If we were living in a world infused with spirits, resurrected bodies, virgin births, and flying carpets, then a claim that there was a virgin birth, and a resurrected body 2000 years ago would be ordinary. But we don't live in such a world. We live in such a world where these things are never shown to have happened. And that's why such claims are extraordinary and require extraordinary evidence.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 1 Bad Religion)

On almost every page of Feser's book he seems to make about 10 ballsy points that I disagree with. It makes me want to refute his book line by line like I sometimes do with Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, but that would take me forever and isn't realistically possible. Instead, I will have to summarize what I think are his important points and address them, while hoping that I don't miss his intended argument.

Feser opens up chapter 1, entitled Bad Religion, mentioning the alleged conversion of Anthony Flew from atheism to deism. To be honest with you, I never knew about Flew until a few years ago, and even today I know little about him. He was known for being a prominent atheist during the 20th century, but in 2004, it was reported that he became a deist. I can see how many theists would love to showcase such an example of an atheist's change of mind. Feser brings up Flew's alleged conversion because he thinks it was due to an underlying adoption of an Aristotelian metaphysic, and Feser argues that this is what's been erased in modern philosophical thinking. Adopting classical Aristotelian metaphysics, Feser states, "effectively makes atheism and naturalism impossible."(7)

Without defining secularism again, Feser asserts it's a "religion to itself" and is "necessarily and inherently, a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world". (2-3) He accuses secularists of being intolerant of defectors with "close-minded prejudice" and that they hypocritically act just like the religious believers they oppose. (2) He seems to have no problem conflating "secularist" with "atheist."

There are many ways one can use the term secular. It has both a political meaning and a philosophical meaning. In the political sense, secularism is "the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries." To be a "secularist" in the political sense is to maintain that principle regardless of whether one believes in god or not. A theist can therefore be a political secularist. However, in the social or philosophical sense, secularism can be a "social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship." This definition can be almost synonymous with atheism, since virtually all atheists are secularists in the philosophical sense. But a deist can be a secularist in the philosophical sense too, and a non-religious theist arguably could be as well. This makes the term "secular" very confusing and the context it's being used in very important, and Feser should have made that less confusing by defining what he means, especially when he calls secularism "deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane." It seems that Feser is using the philosophical sense of the word rather than the political sense, but he never makes that clear.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The F-Word

There's a dirty work that begins with the letter F in the atheist community. It's often met with horror and disgust at its mere utterance and often as a result leads to a nasty argument. If you've guessed that it's faith, you've guessed right.

I generally define faith as the belief in things that you do not have good evidence for. The American philosopher Peter Boghossian defined it as "pretending to know things you don't know" in his book A Manial for Creating Atheists. Many theists want to define faith as belief in things you have good reason to think are true. The many ways to define "faith" are similar to the many ways to define "religion."

What is the role of faith in a religion that says the purpose of life is to "know" god? I've been curious to know from theists what they think the relationship between faith and god should be.

I ask this because there are so many theists trying hard to argue that there is indisputable evidence that god exists. If there are slam dunk arguments that "prove" god exists, doesn't that dissolve the need for faith in god? Conversely, I often hear theists saying that god doesn't want to give us proof that he exists, because then we wouldn't need any faith, we would just "know" it. So on the one hand there are some theists who are saying god gives us indisputable proof that he exists, and on the other there are some theists saying that god deliberately make his existence ambiguous and hidden so that faith is required in order to believe in him. And many of these theists claim to believe in the same god from in the same religion.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Preface)

Feser starts out the preface of his book going on a long tirade about the "metaphysical absurdity and moral abomination" of same sex marriage. He bemoans the "sexual libertinism and contempt for religion" that has been allowed to become common and public and no longer the "private eccentricities of a decedent elite". In doing so he comes off sounding a lot like Archie Bunker did when seeing the effects of feminism and the civil rights movement, and to me it's very off-putting.

Feser would fit right into the Fox News spin machine. In fact, he could be the spokesperson for the religious right. He's angry that homosexuality is now tolerated to the point where gays have the chance to marry each other (the horrors!). He's angry that belief in god is no longer the default position accepted by academics, scientists, and philosophers. He's angry that the New Atheists and "secularists" have ushered in the "near total collapse of traditional morality," as he phrases it. The bottom line is that Feser is very angry with the way things are and the way things are headed. And I can totally see why. If I were a conservative Christian, I'd be pissed at the direction Western culture is headed. "Traditional" values are being replaced by "progressive" values, traditional religion is being replaced by non-religion and atheism, and the cultural and legal power structures that have allowed religious conservatives a stronghold on society and politics for so long are collapsing. While this is all music to my ears as a progressive and an atheist, it's no wonder people like Feser are pissed.

Feser's conservative Catholic attitude towards morality, society, science, and philosophy are exactly why I'm an anti-theist and hold religion in contempt. The kind of theist Feser represents is what motivates me to spend the hours that I do trying to refute and help destroy the religious worldview that I think poisons the mind and is harmful (not to mention false). Feser not only contends that belief in god is perfectly rational when seen in its best light, he maintains that atheism is logically impossible. Secularism, he says, "ought to be driven back into the intellectual and political margins whence it came," because it's a "clear and present danger to the stability of any society". The thing is, Feser never actually defines secularism in the preface and seems to use it interchangeably with atheism. So it's not clear what he's arguing against and he seems to think his audience will just know that secularism means something tantamount to atheism, which is untrue. But nonetheless, these are bold claims and Feser knows it, and in the following chapters he will try and justify them all. For now, he just seems to need to get his disdain for New Atheism off of his chest.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism

A Christian that I often debate with was kind enough to buy me a book that he thinks makes a good case for god's existence and addresses many of the arguments made by the so called New Atheists. In return, I promised to actually read the book (of course) and write a chapter-by-chapter review of it here on my blog.

Well the book, called The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheismwritten by a philosopher named Edward Feser, arrived a few days ago. I've read the first chapter and the preface and I have to say that the book seems like an interesting read. I like Feser's writing style. He's very polemic and clear about articulating his point of view and he's able to keep my attention while reading (which is very important). And at 267 pages of content, the book isn't too long.

I had very little knowledge of Feser before being told of this book. He's an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College according to Wikipedia. There are thousands of professors like Fesar who stay under the radar and never make a whole lot of noise outside of esoteric philosophy circles, and one can make a name for themselves by criticizing or debating big name philosophers and scientists, like those that comprise the New Atheists. But so far Feser is still relatively unknown, even to many theists and atheists active in the debate over god, religion, and secularism.

Feser's book is a critique of what's become known as New Atheism, and I'm told it's a very good one. Here on this blog I will be critiquing Feser's critique of New Atheism. But here's the problem. I don't always agree with many of the New Atheists myself. And to be honest with you, the only two books I've read in their entirety made by a New Atheist author is Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (which I still regard as an excellent critique of Abrahamic monotheism and its social effects),* and Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. I've read part of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which is arguably the most famous of the New Atheist's books, and I've read excerpts of Sam Harris' The End of Faith (which is the book that started the "New Atheism" phenomenon) and Daniel Dennett's, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I agree with these guys on a lot of stuff, but not on everything. So when I criticize Feser it won't necessarily be from the perspective of the New Atheists, it will be from my perspective. And that means I might at times agree with Feser and not with the New Atheists, or I might disagree with them both.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

List Of Capital Offenses In The Old Testament

Here's a list of all the capital offenses in the Old Testament as compiled by Thom Stark in Is God a Moral Compromiser? It makes for a handy reference.

  • Premeditated Murder (Exod 21:12-14, 22-23)
  • Kidnapping (Exod 21:16)
  • Striking a Parent (Exod 21:15)
  • Cursing a Parent (Exod 21:17)
  • Rebelling against a Priest (Deut 17:12)
  • Rebelling against a Parent (Deut 21:18-21)
  • Sacrificing to Deities Other Than Yahweh (Exod 22:20)
  • Working on Saturdays (Exod 35:2)
  • Using Yahweh’s Name in Vain (Lev 24:10-16, 23)
  • Being the Owner of a Goring Ox That Finally Gores a human to Death (Exod 21:29)
  • Prophesying Incorrectly (Deut 18:20)
  • Sacrificing Children to Molech (Lev 20:2)
  • Divination or Magic (Exod 22:18)
  • Adultery (Lev 20:10-21; Deut 22:22)
  • Bestiality (Exod 22:19)
  • Incest (Lev 18:6-17)
  • Homosexuality (Lev 20:13)
  • Consensual Premarital Sex (If You’re a Woman) (Deut 22:20-21)
  • Temple Prostitution (Lev 21:9)
  • Rape of a Married or Engaged Woman (Deut 22:25)
  • Failure To Scream When Being Raped in the City, If You’re an Engaged Woman (Deut 22:23-24)

Interestingly, pedophilia and owning slaves is not a capital offense, but working on Saturday, premarital sex and prophesying wrong is. Considering how horrible this list is, it's a damn good thing we don't have absolute unchanging morality.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Does Acupuncture Work? (Part 2)

(continued from part 1)

Early last summer I began a series of acupuncture treatments to help myself quit smoking. My on-again off-again addiction to tobacco since I was 17 has been one of the most frustrating things to give up, and when Hitchens died of esophageal cancer back in 2011 after decades of having been a heavy smoker, the idea that I should really quit became more pungent. I know that smoking can degrade the quality of life, especially in the latter years, as well as cut years off of it and cost tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. So when I heard that acupuncture can cure this addition, and that my insurance covered the treatment 100% I thought, why not give it a try.

After about 3 dozen sessions what has the result been? Did it cure me of my addition to tobacco? Did it get rid of the desire?

Even though I'm a skeptic, I admit that I wanted acupuncture to work really badly. But after several months of treatment, I can't say that it has cured me of my smoking addition. I definitely smoke less now than I did before I started the treatment, but I don't know if that was due to my psychological desire to quit or whether the acupuncture actually did anything. It is really hard to tell. Maybe the acupuncture just provided me a false sense of security, but I don't know.

Throughout the treatment I was continually asked by the therapists what my smoking level was. This made me feel like I had to report that I was smoking less because I wanted to make them think that it was working. But this also had the effect of making me smoke far less than I normally smoked. I eventually began having days when I didn't smoke any cigarettes at all, which I didn't have before the treatment.

YouTube Atheists

I enjoy my share of YouTube atheists from time to time. They can provide a lot of entertainment and help you understand and refute the many apologetic tricks theists never cease to conjure up.

One YouTube atheist I've come to like is this guy calling himself TheMessianicManic. I like his videos because they're usually short and to the point, no more than 5 minutes or so, and he takes on many of the common arguments theists make. I also like the style of his videos. They're well edited and straightforward and not too over the top. Check him out below:

This other guy CultOfDusty is pretty well known. This particular video humiliating Ray Comfort is genius.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What A Week

I've been out for sometime due to a medical issue that caused me to spend a few days in the hospital. Life's been pretty shitty for me the past week or so. I can tell you that if I didn't have medical insurance I'd be fucked. It's sad to think that in the richest country on earth, a person's life could be nearly ruined because of a treatable medical emergency. I have private health insurance through my job and so far it's been OK, but I wonder what Obamacare would've been like.

I have some pending posts I hope will be interesting. I will follow up on my post Does Acupuncture Work? and I will have my personal answer to whether it worked for me. Also, a Christian interlocutor of mine who I debate with regularly has offered to buy me a book he thinks makes a good argument against the New Atheists called The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. I hope it's a good read. The reviews I've read however, are not too kind, but we shall see.

I've spent years trying to find the best arguments for god and against atheism. In the early years I've focused on a lot of Ray Comfort level idiocies but were then told by theists that I really needed to check out William Lane Craig, because unlike embarrassments like Ray Comfort et al., Craig was a "sophisticated theologian" who was able to address all the atheist's challenges for evidence. Well, after having spent years following (and critiquing) Craig's arguments, I'm not that impressed by him. In fact, although I think he's a superb debater, I think many of his arguments and views are a joke. But then I was told yet again by internet Christians that Craig is not a real sophisticated theologian, and I had to check out Alvin Plantinga, because he was a real sophisticated theologian. Then I read some of Plantinga's arguments, and although I do indeed find them sophisticated in that they're complex and very esoteric, I didn't find them compelling and found some of them also to be joke-worthy.

But yet again I'm told that the real "sophisticated theologians" are the ones behind the scenes who aren't the well known popularizers. And now I land of Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher who I'm lead to believe is the real real sophisticated theologian. Well, I will read his book and give a chapter by chapter review on this blog. It will be a nice little winter project, as I'm generally inclined to stay home in the long cold winter months. And as an interesting note, I was told that reading Feser's book would deeply challenge my atheism. Oh really? This should be fun.

Stay tuned.

Monday, October 13, 2014

William Lane Craig On Identifying Objective Moral Values

Listen to our favorite apologist William Lane Craig in the video above explaining where he thinks we can identify the objective moral values he believes are grounded in Yahweh. He says the way you can know moral values are objective are that you can "appeal to your moral experience. Don't you think as you reflect on it, that certain things are genuinely evil, for torture a little child for fun."

But listen to this. Craig's basis for objective moral values is actually our subjective emotional responses. This is quite interesting and problematic, for at least two reasons:

First, how does Craig explain the sociopath who doesn't feel that it is evil to torture a child for fun and may even enjoy the idea? The truth of the matter is that we don't all respond emotionally to different moral situations the same way. Some of us lack the physiological ability to empathize with the suffering of others and may even enjoy the idea of torturing others. The basis for objective morals is therefore on shaky ground if it is going to be rooted in one's subjective emotional response.

Second, our emotional responses differ from culture to culture and from people to people. Take an issue like same sex marriage. There are people on both sides of the issue that are very passionate and emotional about their views. Trying to "appeal to your moral experience" will do nothing on these kinds of moral issues to establish an objective basis. Craig might think that his moral experience is somehow more objective than others, but he has no basis to make such an argument.

What Craig is actually doing is a microcosm of what all religion does on morality. What religion does is it takes the moral values that are held by that culture - what repels them, what attracts them - and codifies it into a religion and assumes that these morals are now somehow properly basic. Craig is just taking his own moral experience as a Christian American and making them "properly basic" and declaring them objective, but in reality there's no objective basis for them, it's totally subjective. That he doesn't see this is telling.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Islam, ISIS, Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, And Sam Harris, Oh My

I can't believe that I haven't yet written a single post about the radical Islamic militant group ISIS, although I've tweeted plenty about it. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply just the Islamic State, are a band of radical Islamic militants who, through a campaign of violence and terror, have gained control of many parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq and seek to establish a new Islamic caliphate based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, known as Sharia. They've been accused of beheadings, crucifixions, and mass killings, and are considered even too extremist for Al Qaeda.

ISIS's brutality is once again reigniting a debate that we never actually finished having which became part of the national conversation after the events of September 11th, 2001. The debate is over whether Islam is a religion that condones violence and oppression, and whether the problem with terrorism and violence among Muslims is caused, at least in part, by the Islamic religion.

Recently, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Ben Affleck got into a scuffle with Maher and guest Sam Harris over this very issue. What ensued was a classic failure of liberals like Affleck to understand the argument. Affleck did exactly what Harris says liberals do when he said, "We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people and that is intellectually ridiculous." Almost right after that Affleck does exactly what Harris just said people do by calling it "racist" to criticize Islam, which is a fucking religion! What Affleck fundamentally doesn't understand is that Maher and Harris are criticizing the religion of Islam, not the followers. They're criticizing the Koran and what it says, and you can criticize the Koran without saying all Muslims are violent or sexist. The Koran has many violent and sexist verses in it (as I will get to), but we all fully acknowledge that most Muslims are not violent. They're not all trying to blow themselves up to get 72 virgins, or cut the head off of the nearest infidel. Critics of religion like Maher, Harris and myself, can recognize this important distinction that far too many liberals like Affleck fail to see.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Brian Greene On Free Will And The Laws Of Physics

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A List Of Psychological Biases That Humans Have

I'm always baffled when I hear theists make the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), where they argue that naturalistic evolution would make our beliefs fit for survival, and not for truth, but somehow think that with god's guidance our brains were designed for truth. Below I have a list of some of the biases that affects virtually every human being taken from Michael Shermer's book, The Believing Brain. So the challenge to theists who hold to the EAAN is this: if god guided our evolution so that our brains would hold beliefs that are true, why do we have so many psychological biases that prevent us from the truth that appear to be the product of that very evolutionary process?

Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.

Hindsight bias: the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge.

Self-justification bias: the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done.

Attribution bias: the tendency to attribute different causes for our own beliefs and actions than that of others.
  • Situational attribution bias: we identify the cause of someone's belief or behavior to the environment.
  • Dispositional attribution bias:  we identify the cause of someone's belief or behavior in the person as an enduring personal trait.

The Great Religion Debate Part 3: Is the world better off without religion?

Religion is a notoriously difficult word to define. For the purposes of the Great Religion Debate I defined religion as "the belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny." Although it may be impossible to find a perfect definition of religion and many will find some issue no matter what definition is provided, this definition differentiates religion from things like philosophy, worldviews and politics.

Although every religion is a worldview, not every worldview is a religion. Under this definition Christianity is a religion, Judaism is a religion, and so is Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, and some forms of Buddhism and Confucianism. Political ideologies, theories and philosophies like liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, socialism and communism are not religions. Neither are naturalistic philosophies such as existentialism or determinism.

One of the best orators against the social effects of religion was the late Christopher Hitchens. He put forth four basic reasons in the beginning of his best seller God is Not Great indicting religion as a poison to the enlightened world. Religious faith he argued:

1) wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos
2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism
3) it is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repressions 
4) it is ultimately grounded in wish-thinking

Many argue that it's not religion in and of itself that causes any harm, it's people acting wrongly in the name of religion that results in this harm. This is usually coupled with the view that it's only some versions of some religions that can be harmful, but that religion as a whole is not to blame. There is no doubt that we must consider nuance when dealing with a concept as complex as religion. I do not in any way think all religions are equally harmful. The term "religion" is like the term "sport," to use Sam Harris' analogy. Some are much more prone to harm than others. To think all religions are equally harmful (or equally good) is therefore naive.


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